Dr. Martin Luther King was more than just a civil rights leader. He is an American icon. It is right that we label him as such because he, more than any other American, opened our collective eyes to the injustice of segregation and discrimination against blacks. But like any American, Dr. King did not fully understand all aspects of the world around him. One of these aspects was his misunderstanding of free-market capitalism.
Dr. King once disparaged capitalism by saying it is a system that results in “a small privileged few being rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.” Based on this statement alone, we know he lacked a fundamental understanding of how free markets works to create prosperity for all economic classes. Therefore, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy this week, let’s also explore the viewpoint of another great black American whose example shows us how the combination of education and self-reliance in a free market can lead us to economic prosperity.
While rightly concerned about the economic well-being of all Americans, Dr.
King’s views were closely aligned with Leftist theologians who espouse a
philosophy known as “Liberation Theology,” a variant of Christian Socialism. This philosophy embraces a blending
of Marxism and traditional Christian theology that implies that Jesus always
stands in defense of the poor by encouraging government wealth redistribution.
In effect, Liberation Theology is a political theology subscribed to by the progressive
Left that demands the government reorganize existing social and economic
systems to guarantee that the poor will flourish as part of society. This
includes government taking possession of private wealth so it can be redistributed
to achieve some degree of economic equality.
Dr. King may not have understood the benefits of free-market capitalism,
but that fact did not make him a bad person. We are all uninformed about some
base of knowledge we collectively rely on to achieve a prosperous society. That
is why we need to look beyond the vision and leadership of any one individual
to fully understand and appreciate truth, particularly when the subject is how to
achieve economic prosperity for all.
Richard Ely, a key founder of the progressive movement in the early 20th century, was an advocate of Christian Socialism. Christian Socialism, as envision by Ely, would involve a group of government appointed elites to determine how private wealth should be taxed and redistributed to generate a more fair and just society. Unfortunately, Christian Socialism and its cousin, Liberation Theology, suffer from the same fatal flaw that all variants of socialism suffer from: a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.
Progressive socialists believe that the core nature of people is innately good and that we will always act with good moral character, providing people have enough resources to live a productive life. That is why Ely and other progressives advocate a role for government that extends beyond the boundaries allowed by our Constitution, one that ensures that all Americans are guaranteed these resources.
Conservatives have a different understanding of human nature. Conservatives believe people are innately self-centered and need to be taught to care about the needs of others. They also believe people respond to incentives, and that too much government support will become a disincentive to work toward personal advancement. That is why conservatives appreciate the need for religion and the role of private religious institutions in serving the needs of the poor. These institutions provided moral clarity, cultivate civic virtue, and promote self-reliance. It is this belief in the role of religion in free society that motivated the Founders to include freedom of religion as one of our First Amendment rights.
Advocates of socialism in all its variants will call out income
inequality as a major social problem that needs to be addressed by taxing the
rich. Christian Socialists will frequently defend this call by pointing to a
well-known teaching of Jesus Christ. That teaching is: “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” However, Walter
Williams, Professor of Economics at George Mason University,
provides insight on this teaching by placing it into its historical context.
“That biblical phrase was quite appropriate for the time because wealth
was most often acquired through capturing, plundering and looting your fellow
man. But, with the rise of capitalism, people like Bill Gates are rich because
they have served their fellow man. Gates has made his fellow man very happy by
building Microsoft computers and software. Fred Smith with Federal Express
serves his fellow man, too. The morality of the free market should be stressed
because it is far superior to any other method of allocating resources.”
– Walter Williams
Dr. King did not appreciate how free-market capitalism benefits
participants of all economic classes because it is built upon voluntary value-add
transactions. These transactions do not take anything from the poor or anyone
else because they are positive sum in nature. This means each party gains
something from a voluntary transaction, otherwise it would not take place. As
these transactions build upon each other it expands the pool of wealth available
in society. Government redistribution of this wealth to the poor may help feed
someone for a day. A better role for government is to help the poor by creating
education and job training opportunities so that Americans can gain the skills
they need to work their way up the economic ladder. That way, they are not simply
fed for a day, but rather for an entire lifetime.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave, self-educated statesman, and advisor to five U.S. Presidents, once gave a speech entitled Self-Made Men, a topic he was eminently qualified to speak on. In his speech, Douglass defended what others have called “rugged individualism” as being the key for economic prosperity for his fellow blacks. Douglass said: “We are to prove that we can better our own condition. One way to do this is to accumulate property. This may sound to you like a new gospel. You have been accustomed to hear[ing] that money is the root of all evil, etc. On the other hand, property—money, if you please—will purchase for us the only condition by which any people can rise to the dignity of genuine manhood; for without property there can be no leisure, without leisure there can be no thought, without thought there can be no invention, without invention there can be no progress.”
Douglass did not just give
speeches on the topic of prosperity, he lived it by his example. He believed in
individual wealth creation instead of government dependency. Douglass did not
see a need to change the system as Dr. King advocated, but rather to prepare
newly enfranchised black Americans to participate within the free-market system
through education. The Douglass legacy is one that recognizes how education and
individual initiative are the primary factors that contribute to personal
success and economic prosperity. By example, despite spending his childhood in
slavery, Douglass would go on to prosper and eventually amass a personal estate
worth an estimated $10 million in current U.S. dollars.
America is right to honor Dr. King who spoke to us about the
moral underpinning of our constitutional republic, founded on Judeo-Christian
ethics. In his famous I Have a Dream speech, he
reminded us that the Declaration and Constitution reflected a promissory note,
one whose time had come to be cashed in to guarantee equal rights for all Americans.
That speech became a catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, two watershed pieces of
legislation that advanced the ability of minorities to share more fully in the
Likewise, we should honor Frederick Douglass’ legacy for his
contributions. Douglass set an example not just for blacks, but all Americans on
how rugged individualism can be a catalyst for overcoming racial discrimination
and economic hardship. He once said: “…if the negro cannot stand on
his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to
stand on his own legs.” Douglass taught us that we do not need to reorganize the American capitalist
system. What we need is the empowerment of education and individual initiative
to participate in that system. It is high time that all Americans embrace these
sentiments as well.
Eric A. BeckEditor-In-ChiefFree Nation Media LLCGreenville, South Carolina##
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